In the fall of 2014, about two years before the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Royal Charter expired, the venerable public broadcaster unveiled an all-star version of the classic 1966 Beach Boys’ hit God Only Knows.
The BBC officially remixed the song—with the sanguine blessing of the song’s creator Brian Wilson and the help of superstars such as Sir Elton John, Chrissie Hynde and Stevie Wonder—to mark the launch of the public broadcaster’s new music service.
The cynical1 suggested the reinvented love song was a not so subtle subliminal message from Dear Old Auntie: value your public broadcaster because “God only knows” what it would be like without our extensive worldwide TV, radio and online services.
A World Without CBC
In Canada, Kellie Leitch, Member of Parliament for Simcoe–Grey, and candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, recently imagined a world without the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She promised to dismantle the public broadcaster if she became prime minister. “The measure of a conservative,” she said in a statement, “is in their efforts to, as the great British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described it, ‘roll back the frontiers of the state.’”2
It is curious, indeed, that Leitch invoked Thatcher in her call to put Canada’s national public broadcaster out of business. Thatcher was, of course, no fan of the BBC. So angered by the BBC’s coverage of the Falkland Islands War and events in Northern Ireland, the British prime minister tasked a committee dominated by “prominent free marketeers” in 1986 to examine scrapping the licence fee that pays for the United Kingdom’s public broadcaster.3 To the surprise of the free enterprise prime minister, the Peacock Enquiry heralded the BBC’s “quality and status” in British life.4 Thatcher eventually conceded that the BBC adds value to British public discourse.
Leitch’s promise to kill the CBC is perplexing for another—more important—reason. The leadership hopeful seems to celebrate media diversity in her statement about the CBC. “For Canadian democracy to thrive,” argues the Conservative leadership hopeful, “we need to hear from the different voices in the press.” Leitch echoes, it appears, the idealized notion of a robust news media playing a vital role in democracy. To be certain, an independent media provides a crucial check-and-balance in democracy. A diverse and thriving media is a public good. But leaving it up to the private sector to fulfill that public good is a troublesome proposition, especially in this precarious time for Canadian media. The coming pages beg to ask about the practicality, as Leitch suggests, of Canadians “hear[ing] from… different voices in the press.” Moreover, this discussion also argues that the CBC is vital to enabling those diverse voices to get heard.
Canada’s beleaguered media continues to wither. Print media is beset with plummeting revenue and layoffs in newsrooms across the country. In the past decade, it is estimated that Canada has lost half of all of its journalists.5 The federal government is so concerned by Canada’s troubled media that it is studying the country’s $48 billion media and cultural industries and contemplating “what the media landscape would look like without the country’s two largest newspaper companies.”6 These are troubled times for Canada’s newsrooms. A former National Post journalist told the National Observer that the situation is so grim at Postmedia that journalists have resorted to scalping stories from CBC’s website. “They would look for regional CBC stories,” according to the anonymous journalist, “get that and put a Post spin on it. That's how they found stories.”7 Clearly, the ability of Canadians to hear those “different voices” in the country’s media, as Leitch suggests, is growing increasingly difficult.
For decades, critics of the CBC have contended that the public broadcaster should concern itself only with what private media can’t or won’t do. It seems we have arrived (or soon will) at that moment. Private media is struggling to do what critics of the CBC said commercial media could do better—and more efficiently—than the public broadcaster. Some experts even suggest local newspapers and TV will vanish.8 Surely, this is the time for a healthy public broadcaster.
Media and Democracy
Canada’s faltering news media present important questions about our democracy. Joshua Benton has argued the decline of local media in the U.S. helped, in part, to give rise to nativism and Donald Trump.9 Many supporters of the U.S. President, as Benton stresses, felt alienated from their local institutions. “The braided fabric”—factories, churches and local newspapers—of their communities, writes Benton, “unraveled”, leaving many Americans disconnected. With their newspapers—the local “backbone” of news—gone, people in the U.S. have turned increasingly to national media such as Fox News and far-right websites such as Breitbart News. Media scholars worry about the influence of these news sources. Researchers at the University of Michigan, notably, concluded that this increasing reliance on online media is distorting reality for many, “isolate[ing] people in information bubbles only partly of their own choosing.”10
In this increasingly fractured world, where fake news—misinformation that people too frequently believe—oozes through the web, the CBC—with its commitment to public service and editorial integrity—offers a social barricade, of sorts, against distorted news, disenfranchisement, cynicism and polarization in Canada. Christina Holtz-Bacha and Pippa Norris, in fact, found that public broadcasting audiences are more politically aware.11 Moreover, in a vast country such as Canada—with a history of unsettled federalism—public broadcasting offers, as Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff contend, “a shared public life” and a “we-feeling.”12 Outside of Canada’s major centres, the CBC is, as John Doyle recently observed, “a vital
presence, providing local coverage and Canadian content, which, though diminished, is vastly appreciated by residents of cities big and small and in rural areas.”13
The CBC, is a public good, as Wade Rowland has argued.14 All too often, though, the crown corporation does not get spoken about as a public service comparable to schools, hospitals, universities, and public museums.15 Yet, with diminishing media and the creep of political polarization, the CBC’s services are required now just as much as in its nascent days of stemming the growing influence of U.S. radio broadcasts in Canada. “Everybody who is smart in bureaucracies and governments around the Western world,” argues philosopher John Ralston Saul “now knows that public broadcasting is one of the most important remaining levers that a nation state has to communicate with itself.”16 Even the prominent conservative and former media baron Conrad Black extolls the contribution CBC makes, calling the public broadcaster “a necessary instrument of public policy.”17
If democracy is to be taken seriously, stresses Nicholas Garnaham, public broadcasting must be defended and enhanced. Democracy, he writes, is not served “by sectionalized, ghettoized media talking only to a particular interest group or the party faithful.”18 The CBC speaks to a wider—less segmented—audience. It distinguishes itself by covering the far reaches of the country and its diverse population while other media neglects much of rural and northern Canada because it is “too expensive. Not sexy enough. No ratings.”19
A New Start
It is also worth noting that CBC is popular with Canadians. Local CBC Radio One morning shows are number one in major cities across the country. CBC News’ website is consistently one of the most popular online news sources in Canada. For many Canadians, CBC is their only news service. Moreover, a 2013 survey found that 80 per cent of Canadians feel the “CBC plays an important role in strengthening Canadian culture and identity.”20 And in the last federal election, thousands of Canadians planted “We Vote CBC!” signs on their lawns.
The Liberal government’s most recent budget invested $675 million over five years to “modernize and revitalize CBC/Radio Canada in a digital era.”21 But that’s not enough. It’s time to look seriously at making the CBC commercial free. Plus, the corporation’s governance structure must be overhauled to make the public broadcaster more independent of government.22
This essay began by wondering if the BBC’s re-mixed Beach Boys’ hit God Only Knows contained a hidden subtext about that venerable broadcaster’s future. It closes by asking what Canada would be without CBC. Would it be worth creating a comparable organization? Would it be worth the public expense? The answer is, of course, an unequivocal yes. The CBC is not only popular, but it enriches the cultural and democratic life of Canada, constituting an intangible public good that is immeasurable, especially now when so much other media continues to vanish. And, perhaps, if public broadcasting skeptics such as Margaret Thatcher can come to realize the value of the BBC, maybe—God Only Knows—those here in Canada who wish to kill the CBC will face facts and finally recognize the profound contribution the public broadcaster already makes—and can continue to make—to Canadian life.